No analogy is perfect, but understanding events unfolding in Tunisia requires a look at the past. And present.
Ten days after the fall of President Ben Ali, the historical comparisons are being trotted out to explain the "Tunisian revolution" and its possible impact on the entire region. Are we in Gdansk, Poland in 1980, where the spark that just lit up Tunisia is destined to unleash a rolling political revolution across the Arab world in the coming months or years? Or is it Romania in the aftermath of Ceausescu's fall in 1989, with the coup d"état already taken over by the authorities on the ground? Do these explicit references to the liberation of central and eastern Europe, made by a number of Arab intellectuals, really have meaning? What would be the true equivalent for the Arab world today for what was then the "Soviet stick" or the "European carrot" applied to half a continent held hostage?
Perhaps there is a more apt comparison to the south rather than the east of Europe? Has the Tunisian regime, by opening itself up to the world through tourism and an emphasis placed on education and the women's rights, and the creation of a vibrant middle class, mirrored what Spain did in the 1960s under the Franco government?
In this case, would a civil society be truly ready to take over an autocratic regime once it is overthrown? Who would play the equivalent role for Tunisia that the King played in Spain? What might be the symbol of the continuity of the state and the unity of his nation? If it is justified, the comparison with the emergence from Francoist state would clearly separate Tunisia from the situation in Egypt, where a Spanish-style civil society does not exist.
One could go on and on citing historical references or geographical analogies, all of which contain a grain of truth, but fail to sum up the unique case of Tunisia. It would certainly be optimistic to consider the fall of President Ben Ali as the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it would be imprudent not to acknowledge that there will be a before and after the "Jasmine Revolution," both in Tunisia, and the entire Arab world.
Images of Tunisians slashing portraits of the deposed dictator have been seen around the world. This time, it wasn't American soldiers who put their flag on the fallen statue of Saddam Hussein, but unarmed Arab citizens who fought for their own freedom and dignity.
In reality, following the Tunisian revolution, the Arab world can consider two political experiments already underway in Muslim countries, neither of which is Arab: the Turkish and the Iranian models.
If challenges to ruling regimes spread to other countries in the region, how many would be tempted by the Turkish-style opening up and how many by Iranian fundamentalism? Nuance should certainly be incorporated into this simplistic dichotomy. There are shades of gray in the current Turkish experience and its version of moderate Islam, while beyond the mullahs, some reason to hope is built into the vibrant character of Iranian society.
Between these two alternate models, the West clearly prefers Turkey over Iran. As much as a quasi-consensus exists today to keep a reasonable distance between Turkey and the EU, there is an equal desire for Turkey to play a stabilizing role in a changing and potentially messy Arab world.
History may not repeat itself, but wouldn't a neo-Ottoman order provide a better alternative to chaos in the Arab world? The role of Turkey, as led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is expanding across the region, its image reinforced in the Arab street following Erdogan's clear stand last year on Israel's intervention of the flotilla en route to Gaza? Being popular is one thing; serving as a model is another.
Dominique Moïsi is a special adviser to IFRI (the French Institute for International Relations).
Read the original article in French
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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